As our frontier moved westward, it was the railroads that bore the great tide of Americans to the areas of new opportunities and hope. It was the railroads that linked together the diverse segments of this vast land so that together they might create the greatest economy the world has known." --- John F. KennedyThe story of the railroads is also the story of a growing America. Early development was limited largely to the coast and areas adjacent to navigable waterways. Development of the railroad changed that, unlocking vast stores of natural resources and allowing population centers to develop in areas previously considered inaccessible. As the nation grew and flourished, so did the railroads, stretching across the country's vast plains and mountains and up and down its coasts. Most of the nation's major cities and industrial centers can attribute their development in some measure to commerce generated by the railroad.
Beginning in the 1820s, the railroad captured the imagination of Americans in much the same way as it was captured by the space race in the 1960s. Demand for fast freight and passenger trains paralleled the rise of the industrial revolution, as Americans in the industrial age correctly reasoned that speed and efficiency would lead directly to increased profits."
After the tent, the second greatest technological innovation was the use of the railroad in 1832 to transport the American circus. Prior to the use of railroads, circus and menageries owners moved their shows up and down the Eastern Seaboard via wagons and boats. The wagon shows, sometimes referred to as “trains” had many of the components that would eventually become part of the railroad circus. The circus men moved cage wagons, and baggage trains filled with the tents and their contents. Some of these shows grew to a size that would rival the later railroad shows; a hundred wagons and hundreds of horses. Some of the early wagon shows included Spalding & Rogers Circus, Howes Great London show, the Van Amburgh Menagerie and the Adam Forepaugh Circus. When the railroad became an option, these shows quickly moved to the new form of transportation allowing them more flexibility to go further, and play more cities.
The early American circus fully realized the full potential of the railroad to transport their shows, but the railroad could not handle the specialized movement of the circus especially when there was more than one gauge or distance between the rails. The standard gauge in America and Canada is 4’-8.5”. During the 1850’s and 60’s a typical railroad show could be called a “gilly” show—one that transported the show from the train to the lot by manual labor in rented wagons. This method solved the problem of transporting the circus from the train to the lot. This method or “gilly” show was also very labor intensive. Equipment used on the show would be loaded onto a gilly wagon from a railroad boxcar, transported to the lot, and after the performance, loaded back onto the gilly wagon and transported back to the box car. A circus transferring from one gauge to another would require the show to unload the cars, and transport the equipment to the waiting railroad.
The first record of the movement of the American Circus by rail occurred in 1832 when Charles bacon and Edward Derious moved parts of the show in Georgia. Other shows were moved in 1839, 1845 and 1850. However, it was during the 1850’s circus owners began to look seriously at moving their shows on the rails. In 1851 Stone & Madigan Circus played the Mississippi valley using the railroad to make many of their moves. 1853, the Railroad Circus & Crystal Amphitheatre, 1854, Madigan, Myers & Barton’s Railroad Circus & Amphitheatre and Den Stone’s Original Railroad Circus and in1855, the Great Western Railroad Circus. All of these shows were small in comparison to some of the wagon shows still moving over land such as Seth B. Howes.
In 1857, using their knowledge acquired with previous shows, Gilbert R. Spalding and Charles J. Rogers operated a new show called Spalding & Rogers Railroad Circus on nine custom–built cars. The tour started in Washington D.C., traveled through Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Maine, the British provinces and into Michigan. To deal with the different changes in gauges during their tour, the shows’ cars used adjustable axles. At the end of this one railroad tour, Spalding & Rogers did not return to the railroad.
Although Spalding & Rogers did not continue on the rails, many shows continued to move overland by wagons. However, a number of circuses followed in the footsteps of Spalding & Rogers. Dan Rice show, Howes & Robinson and Lewis Lent and others used the rails to move their shows.
In the 1860’s there were a number of shows that used the “new method” of railroading and the “old method” of moving their shows in the same season.
The first important effort to create a “railroad circus” occurred in the middle of the nineteenth century when a group of showmen operated what is generally considered the railroad circus. These first railroad cars were probably a combination of railroad type vehicle with flanged wheels that were able to ride on the tracks and on the roads. Because the railroad was not to fond of building specialty cars, the circus was free to design cars to suit their needs.
During the 1860’s the phrases “railroad show” and “railroad circus” came into popular use to differentiate the shows that traveled by road and those who traveled by rail. A typical railroad show of the 1860’s could be called a “gilly” show—one that transported the show from the train to the lot by manual labor in rented wagons. The railroad circus stumbled in its early development because it did not know how to do efficient and reproducible movements and the railroad could not handle circus movements especially where there was more than one gauge. Different gauge railroads meant transferring the circus equipment from one gauge railroad to another.